Category Archives: Thought-Provoking

Why our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman gave a wonderful lecture on behalf of the British Reading Agency last October, arguing for the central importance of reading and libraries to our society:

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s’ library I began on the adult books.

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.

The entire lecture is well worth a read.

Neil Gaiman: Why our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming   [theGuardian]


40 Maps That Will Help You Understand the World


Twister Sifter is carrying a great compilation of maps with some extra information on them. Several of them have been featured on this blog before, but not even close to all of them. I particularly like the map above, showing the most common surnames by country in Europe, and the one below, which shows where different writing systems are used around the world. For both, click to embiggen.


40 Maps That Will Help You Make Sense of the World   [TwisterSifter]

George Saunders’s Advice to Graduates


The New York Times is carrying a transcript of author George Saunders’s convocation address to the class of 2013 at Syracuse University. It’s a beautiful piece.

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. 

George Saunders’s Advice to Graduates   [NYTimes]

The Origin of ‘The World’s Dumbest Idea’

Scanned Image 01108

Writing in Forbes magazine, Steve Denning discusses the origins of what he terms ‘the world’s dumbest idea’: Milton Friedman’s notion that the sole purpose of an enterprise is to make money for its shareholders.

The success of the article was not because the arguments were sound or powerful, but rather because people desperately wanted to believe. At the time, private sector firms were starting to feel the first pressures of global competition and executives were looking around for ways to increase their returns. The idea of focusing totally on making money, and forgetting about any concerns for employees, customers or society seemed like a promising avenue worth exploring, regardless of the argumentation.

In fact, the argument was so attractive that, six years later, it was dressed up in fancy mathematics to become one of the most famous and widely cited academic business articles of all time. In 1976, Finance professor Michael Jensen and Dean William Meckling of the Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester published their paper in the Journal of Financial Economics entitled “Theory of the Firm: Managerial Behavior, Agency Costs and Ownership Structure.”

Underneath impenetrable jargon and abstruse mathematics is the reality that whole intellectual edifice of the famous article rests on the same false assumption as Professor Friedman’s article, namely, that an organization is a legal fiction which doesn’t exist and that the organization’s money is owned by the stockholders.

Even better for executives, the article proposed that, to ensure that the firms would focus solely on making money for the shareholders, firms should turn the executives into major shareholders, by affording them generous compensation in the form of stock. In this way, the alleged tendency of executives to feather their own nests would be mobilized in the interests of the shareholders.

The Origin of ‘The World’s Dumbest Idea’: Milton Friedman   [Forbes]

TV Ownership vs. Fertility

fertility and television

This map shows a pretty strong inverse correlation between TV ownership and fertility rates in India. I would tend to think that the relationship is not direct, but rather that both charts reflect a regional difference in standard of living.


World’s Smallest Museum


Collector’s Weekly has a fascinating article about the world’s smallest museum, called Museum, in Manhattan. It’s only open 16 days a week, but you can look through the windows on weekends, and call a toll-free number to get an audio tour through your mobile.

Most of the items in the museum would seem like junk on their own, like a collection of money so mutilated is has been taken out of circulation, or a collection of toothpaste tubes from around the world. However, Alex Kalman, one of the curators, says that while things like newspapers and films are one way to learn about a culture, it’s possible to get a great insight from looking at “the smallest things that cultures create and seeing the similarities and differences between them.”

Here’s a snippet from the interview:

Of course, there’s that fine line between collecting and hoarding. It’s important to understanding where you stand on that and to make sure to limit yourself as well as others. But most of these collections don’t come from an endless desire to have. The Museum comes from a desire to create narratives through the collections. Definitely, when you think about the items individually, you can say, “Oh, this is junk.” But if you take a step back and view the collection as a whole, then suddenly it becomes easy to find meaning. Once you start looking at the packaging of Japanese toothpaste versus Italian toothpaste versus Russian toothpaste, it becomes very interesting quickly.

Another point is the way the collections are presented, the way we display them. Right now, we have 15 collections in the Museum, making up a total of about 200 objects. Each one has a story posted on the wall behind it. When the museum is closed, you can access the story via the audio guide. And when you enter the space, even though it’s in an unexpected place and at an unexpected scale, it feels like a museum. It feels as though you’re walking in the Louvre, expecting to see the “Mona Lisa,” but instead you’re presented with this toothpaste collection. And that’s to impose the clear value that we see in these objects, and that we treat them as seriously as one might a historical piece of art.

We’re trying to remind people to see the inspiration or the absurdity or the beauty in the everyday, and to be able to see it when you walk to work. Or when you go to the deli, the way someone has displayed sodas in the refrigerator can be meaningful and beautiful. After all, somebody spent time and energy to think of a considerate way to display those sodas, the same way somebody thought about, “How do we display the Queen’s jewels?”

World’s Smallest Museum Finds the Wonder in Everyday Objects   [Collector’s Weekly]

How I Met My Wife


In the current issue of Tin House, Robert Boswell recounts the story of how he met his wife, and explains a lot about how good fiction is crafted along the way.

Why are we drawn to stories about people falling in love? There are likely a host of reasons, but here’s a good one: marriage, when observed from a place of solitude, has the power of dream. Solitary people fall in love with couples, imagining their own lives transformed by such a union. And once the transformation finally happens, people need to talk about it, telling not only their families, friends, and strangers on the bus but also themselves—repeating it to make it real, to investigate the mystery of marital metamorphosis. And they get good at the telling. People who cannot otherwise put together an adequately coherent narrative to get you to the neighborhood grocery will nonetheless have a beautifully shaped tale of how he met she (or he met he, or she met she) and became we.

Such stories often have many literary qualities. They rely, almost by definition, on the revelation and transformation of character—the same elements that are the backbone of literary stories. The narratives have a mystery at the beginning: how the characters begin loving each other before they understand they’re doing it, the way sleep enters our bodies before we’re actually asleep; and like sleep, we fall into love, and fall deeper as we go. The narratives also have something like a built-in ending. A wedding, after all, is the traditional conclusion for comedies, and it is meant to indicate that the transformation has transpired. Passing through the ritual of the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom are irrevocably changed.

How I Met My Wife   [Tin House]